Monday, May 25, 2015

Corporate Counsel: Directed Verdicts in Negligence Actions

By Caroline Johnson Levine

Corporations defending negligence actions that are unable to obtain a dismissal or summary judgment may present evidence to argue for and achieve a directed verdict. However, directed verdicts can be difficult to sustain when a plaintiff can provide some proof a defendant proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, 157 So. 3d 273 (Fla. 2015), the Florida Supreme Court recently resolved “when a defendant is entitled to a directed verdict in a negligence action.”

In that case, Shandalyn Sanders’ estate sued ERP, “a national company owning approximately one hundred properties,” which owned the apartment complex where Sanders and a companion were murdered. Id. at 275. ERP marketed its apartment complex as a highly secure gated community, with “a policy of providing reasonable lighting, locks, and peepholes” and alarm systems. Id. However, 20 crimes had been committed at the complex, and the entrance gate had been intermittently broken in the three years before the evening that “the victims were shot to death by unknown assailants.” Id. Sanders’ estate alleged that ERP negligently failed to maintain the entry gate, provide reasonable lighting, and warn the residents of previous criminal activity. Id.

A defense expert testified that the demise of Sanders in a violent manner was not foreseeable and that a security gate was not necessary because ERP provided reasonable security measures. The trial court denied a directed verdict, and the jury returned a verdict in Sanders' favor. However, the appellate court reversed the jury verdict and held “that Sanders did not present sufficient evidence to establish that ERP’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of the deaths of the decedents in this negligent security action, thereby warranting a directed verdict for ERP.” Id. at 277.

The Florida Supreme Court held that “[w]hether or not proximate causation exists is a question of fact, involving an inquiry into whether the respondent’s breach of duty foreseeably and substantially contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries.” Id. at 277 (citing McCain v. Fla. Power Corp., 593 So. 2d 500, 502 (Fla. 1992)). Further, in “order for a court to remove the case from the trier of fact and grant a directed verdict, there must only be one reasonable inference from the plaintiff’s evidence.” Id. (citing Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So. 2d 315, 322 (Fla. 2001)).

The Supreme Court reviewed the evidence presented by Sanders’ estate and concluded that it provided “a question of fact as to whether ERP more likely than not caused the decedent’s deaths” and that it “should properly be considered by a jury in a comparative negligence analysis and is not a basis for a directed verdict.” Id. at 282. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has consistently held that courts require “proof that the [defendant’s] negligence probably caused the plaintiff’s injury,” which provides an opportunity for a defendant to present evidence that it could not foresee causation of the plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at 277 (quoting Gooding v. Univ. Hosp. Bldg., Inc., 445 So. 2d 1015, 1018 (Fla. 1984)).